ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. -- Marty Small intends on bringing big changes to Atlantic City, where yet another political corruption scandal has propelled him to the office he has sought for so long.
Small, the City Council president, became acting mayor Friday, a day after Frank Gilliam Jr., a fellow Democrat, admitted stealing $87,000 from a youth basketball club he founded, and resigned.
It was the latest spin of the mayoral wheel in this seaside gambling resort, where political corruption has such a long, rich history that HBO created an award-winning TV series about it, "Boardwalk Empire." Though the show, starring Steve Buscemi, dealt with Atlantic City's turn-of-the-century misconduct, the tradition has lived on for decades.
As recently as 2007, four of the city's last eight mayors had been arrested on corruption charges and one-third of the nine-member City Council was either in prison or under house arrest.
And Small himself was indicted twice — and acquitted twice — of election fraud-related charges in prosecutions he maintains were politically motivated.
At his swearing-in ceremony Friday, Small said he comes to the job with clean hands and intends to keep them that way.
"I'm going to follow the law at all times," he declared.
Small, the veteran City Council member, has long been considered a potential mayor in this solidly Democratic city. But several previous runs for office fell short, including his last one, a bitterly fought primary contest with Gilliam in 2017.
As council president, Small joined forces and worked hard with Gilliam's Republican predecessor, Don Guardian, to try to fight off a state takeover that former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, succeeded in imposing.
Ending that takeover is one of Small's main goals — provided he survives the process of picking a medium-term replacement for Gilliam. The city Democratic committee must nominate three choices to the City Council, which will install one as mayor to serve until the general election of 2020.
Small, who is considered likely to be one of those three nominees, said his experience in opposing the state takeover will help him as mayor.
"We all want self-sovereignty," he said. "The thing to do when you lose a battle is let calmer heads prevail. I'm not a stranger; I'm already in the government. I already have those relationships" with state lawmakers.
A high school basketball star and avid Philadelphia Eagles fan, Small regularly organizes trips for fellow fans to see the team play in other parts of the country. And his Small Ball civic parties are a must-attend stop on the political circuit.
He still has bitter memories of the two times state law enforcement officials brought criminal charges against him relating to Atlantic City elections.
Small and five others were acquitted in March 2011 of charges that they tampered with absentee ballots during the 2009 Democratic primary campaign for Atlantic City mayor, allegedly trying to steal the election by manipulating ballots designed for voters too sick to make it to the polls.
The councilman sued New Jersey after the verdict, alleging the state knew it had no evidence against him but prosecuted him anyway because officials were angry about Small's acquittal on a previous voter fraud charge in 2006. He incurred over $100,000 in legal bills in an ultimately unsuccessful effort to prove the state maliciously prosecuted him and stained his good name.
The 2011 case unraveled spectacularly once it got to a courtroom, highlighted by the meltdown of the prosecution's star witness, who hummed on the witness stand, suddenly rushed to the bathroom during testimony, then appeared to try to vomit into a trash can in the courtroom.
Another witness, a cocaine dealer who secretly recorded numerous conversations with Small and others that were a large part of the prosecution's case, appeared to have dozed off on the witness stand at one point, although there was vehement disagreement between the defense and prosecution over whether he was actually sleeping.